At first glance the Canucks don't seem to have much use for a guy like Maxim Lapierre, the chirpy, abrasive, bottom-six forward they picked up from the Ducks at the February trade deadline. Vancouver entered the final week of the regular season having scored more goals than any other club in hockey through week's end (250), while also giving up the fewest (176) and leading the league in a raft of statistical categories, including power play (24.4%) and face-offs (55.1%). Led by a core of venerable stars in their prime—twin brothers and linemates Daniel and Henrik Sedin rank first and third in the league in points, respectively, and goalie Roberto Luongo is tops with 37 wins—the Canucks are clearly the class of the NHL, worthy favorites to hoist the Stanley Cup in June. No team has been better.
So just how much could such a well-balanced team need Lapierre, a journeyman agitator who has scored only six goals in 2010--11 and has more penalty minutes (78) than games played (75)? "History will tell you that as the playoffs go on, and you get into that second month," says Vancouver associate coach Rick Bowness, "your third- and fourth-line players determine the outcome of more games than your elite players." The Canucks—who have finished with more than 100 points three times since 2006--07, only to bow out of the playoffs in the second round each time—are better than ever this season because, as Daniel Sedin says, "the personnel we can trust runs all the way down our bench. Everyone delivers something."
Lapierre's deliveries often come with a snarl. In Detroit last month he delivered a glancing left hook to the shoulder of Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard during a race to clear a loose puck near the face-off circle. That wasn't intentional, was it, Max? "No," he says. "Not, I mean, I don't think not really, it couldn't, you know." So poker isn't Lapierre's game. But look past the mischief and his play is surprisingly nuanced. He has a career face-off percentage of 50.2, and during the Canadiens' surprising run to the Eastern Conference finals last year, Lapierre was a thorny asset. Finishing checks and religiously yapping after whistles, he made life miserable for the Capitals' glitzy forwards in a seven-game first-round upset—Montreal closed out the series with three straight victories, holding top-seeded Washington to a single goal in each game. Against the Penguins in the next round he was often matched against Sidney Crosby, who entered the series as the playoffs' leading scorer. With Lapierre in his face Crosby scored just one goal and was -1 in a seven-game series defeat. Lapierre, on the other hand, netted two goals, including the game-winner in a 4--3 victory in Game 6. "Max is a gritty player, very responsible at both ends," says Luongo. "You know that guy who takes the other team's star off his game and then scores the big goal? There's always an annoying guy like that [in the playoffs]. Max can be that guy for us."
During the regular season unsung weapons such as Lapierre are often cloaked in obscurity. Rather than score goals, they are counted on to perform less glamorous tasks in the pursuit of victory, such as winning face-offs and blocking shots. They are frequently described as muckers, grinders, energy players, character players and role players. And come the spring, they are the most adaptable and least dispensable pieces of the postseason puzzle. No team wins a Stanley Cup without them. "Playoffs are different," says Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa, who has been to three straight finals with three different teams. "Little things matter more, like backchecking, fighting for free pucks, avoiding lazy turnovers. Guys who do that are maybe not the star players, but their value goes way up in the playoffs. We won last year because we had those guys who could do many things."
From Andrew Ladd's corner work to John Madden's penalty killing, the Blackhawks were so deep and versatile that even their fourth-liners became headliners. While team captain Jonathan Toews, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason MVP, was held to three points, all assists, and was -5 in the finals, up stomped winger Ben Eager, the burly enforcer whose seeing-eye wrist shot was the winner in Game 2. Eager isn't an anomaly either. In the past decade such role players as Mike Rupp, Ruslan Fedotenko, Frantisek Kaberle, Travis Moen and Max Talbot have scored Cup-winning goals. Though Chicago—which held the West's eighth and final playoff spot at week's end—still has Hossa, Toews and Patrick Kane, the club lost 10 players during the off-season, including supporting-role stalwarts Eager, Ladd and Madden, due largely to salary-cap challenges, and has been struggling merely to reach the playoffs.
It was Chicago that dismissed the oddly passive Canucks in six games last spring, outbumping and outsquawking Vancouver with third- and fourth-line nuisances throughout the series. Over the summer Canucks G.M. Mike Gillis set out to remake his team with a more mobile lineup that emphasized puck pursuit rather than a pseudotrap that suited Vancouver's European players. Gillis added agile defensemen Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis, and he also signed Raffi Torres, a steady forward who was an important cog in the Oilers' run to the Cup finals in 2006, and center Manny Malhotra, who filled Lapierre's present role of third-line center superbly until he took a deflected puck in the eye on Mar. 16 and went down for the season. (After two surgeries Malhotra's future in the NHL is still uncertain.)
The added depth has been especially valuable to Vancouver, which stands sixth in the league in man-games lost to injury. (The five teams above them are out of the playoffs.) "The team we looked at specifically was Detroit," says Gillis. "Good transition game. Good defense. That meant six defensemen and the kind of third line we didn't have last year."
Having won the Stanley Cup four times since 1997, the Red Wings are the template for modern postseason success. "Look at teams that win Stanley Cups," says Detroit G.M. Ken Holland. "They all have secondary scoring. If our fourth line could play even against someone else's first line, which they could, it always gave us a mismatch that we could exploit somewhere else. We don't win Cups without Steve Yzerman and Nick Lidstrom, but we don't win them either without the Kris Draper--Kirk Maltby--Darren McCarty line. Playoff games are 3--2 or 2--1. You need somebody safe. You don't need somebody doing toe drags and taking chances that end up in your net."
The 39-year-old Draper is a favorite of coach Mike Babcock, who has upped the center's ice time in April. "Draper plays hard, heavy minutes," Babcock says. "By that I mean he makes the other teams work to accomplish something. If you complete a pass, you're going to get checked every time. Don't think it doesn't accumulate over seven games. These minutes are harder in the playoffs, and because of overtime there are more of them. Pretty plays might win you games in regular season, but it's the one-on-one battles that win playoff games. That's what Draper does for you."
In no city do the lines blur more than in Philadelphia, where last season's Eastern champs sit atop the conference with the league's most balanced team. "Some nights our third line is our first line," says Flyers G.M. Paul Holmgren, whose club boasts a league-high six 20-goal scorers (but nobody among the NHL's top 10 in points). "We can be tough to scout. We have wings who can play center, and we can move guys onto different lines."